WASHINGTON — After the release of Wednesday's massive tax cut proposal, no one anymore can accuse George W. Bush of playing it safe.
The sweeping plan--which dwarfs the size of the congressional Republican tax plan that President Clinton vetoed last summer--constitutes an ambitious bet that Bush can shore up the support from party loyalists he needs to nail down the GOP nomination without making himself vulnerable to Democratic attacks in the general election, if he gets that far.
To win that wager, Bush must change the dynamics of a debate that has turned away from Republicans as the booming economy has dimmed the demand for tax cuts.
Coming after months in which the Texas governor has moved toward the center on such issues as education and distanced himself from Republicans in Congress, the tax cut plan thrusts Bush back toward the forward edge of conservative thought. It may mark the first time Bush has accepted significantly more political risk in the general election to reduce risk in the primary.
"This is the first evidence we've seen that George Bush is running a primary campaign," said a senior strategist to one of Bush's competitors. "This is the first policy proposal that is targeted at Republican primary voters, not a general election audience."
Characteristically, Bush is trying to change the terms of the tax debate by focusing more of the plan's benefits on working poor families than Republicans usually do--and by notably omitting any reduction in taxes on capital gains or corporations.
"This is going to be an interesting part of the election, to what extent will I be able to convince the single mom with kids at $22,000 that I mean what I say when I recognize that it's incredibly difficult for her . . . to make it to the middle class," Bush said in an interview Wednesday night.
But the plan's sharp cut in the top tax rate for wealthy families, and its formidable overall price tag--estimated at $1.1 trillion to $1.3 trillion or more over the next decade--instantly inspired Democratic charges that it would favor the rich, consume funds needed for Medicare and Social Security and endanger the economy by plunging the federal budget back into deficit.
Those attacks--which reprise the arguments President Clinton has used to beat back three Republican tax cut proposals in the last four years--signaled the plan's potential to sharpen the ideological contrast in the general election if Bush wins the nomination. Indeed, the proposal guarantees that if Bush is the nominee, voters will face a stark choice about the role of government and the use of the expected federal budget surplus.
While Democratic contenders Al Gore and Bill Bradley would devote the vast majority of the surplus to spending in areas like Medicare, education and health care, Bush would devote the overwhelming share toward tax cuts.
"A government with unlimited funds soon becomes a government of unlimited reach," Bush declared Wednesday while releasing his plan in Des Moines.
Bush's most conservative rivals for the nomination, Steve Forbes and Gary Bauer, quickly denounced his proposal as insufficient. Both have proposed to scrap the progressive income tax in favor of a new system that would eliminate most deductions and tax all income at a single rate.
In the interview, Bush said he rejected a flat tax on grounds of both policy--he supports deductions at least for mortgage payments and charitable contributions--and practicality. "I believe this is more realistic," he said. "I know a president has only got a certain amount of capital and . . . I want to get elected on an agenda that can get enacted."
Bush Would Cut Rates More Than Dole's 15%
The sweep of Bush's plan may make a conservative critique hard to sustain. The plan that congressional Republicans passed last summer would have reduced the tax rates in every bracket by only a single percentage point. Bush would cut the top rate, for the highest earners, by fully 6.6 percentage points--from 39.6% to 33%. He would cut the bottom rate from 15% to 10%, and reduce the middle rates by as much as six points.
In percentage terms, then, Bush would cut tax rates by even more than the 15% across-the-board reduction proposed by presidential nominee Bob Dole in 1996. Bush also reached out to social conservatives by proposing to double (from $500 to $1,000) the tax credit for children, and embraced other top GOP priorities by moving to abolish the inheritance tax and offset the quirk in the tax code that can increase taxes on married couples.
Steve Moore, the director of fiscal studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, said that although he was disappointed the plan did not move toward a flat tax, it represented a more ambitious tax-cutting agenda than he expected.
"There is a Reaganesque element to this plan," he said. "It is much more like [Ronald] Reagan than it is like George Bush Sr."